Japan from the inside out

The pictures of Japan inside your head

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 16, 2009

WALTER LIPPMAN ONCE OBSERVED that the popular conceptions of people, places, and events outside the range of our direct experience are informed by pictures inside our heads, and that these pictures are often created by journalists incapable of seeing beyond the pictures in their own heads.

As long as we realize that the prime directive for the print and broadcast media has always been to entertain rather than to inform, the damage will be no greater than that caused by the stories we habitually tell ourselves in our daily lives anyway. The problems arise when the journalistic drones start believing the pictures they create and cause real trouble by spreading falsehoods among people without the means to educate themselves otherwise.

While this phenomenon exists in the print and broadcast media everywhere, it is endemic in the overseas English-language media dealing with Japan. The pictures in their heads amount to a full-blown hallucination.

Here are brief descriptions of three newspaper articles that appeared today, all about the preparation of food. What sort of cognitive dissonance is created with the pictures in your head when you read them?

Japanese cooking school in Seoul

Shunted off to the side of page 11 in the Nishinippon Shimbun was a brief article covering the announcement that the Nakamura Culinary School of Fukuoka City will open a Seoul branch in September to provide instruction in the preparation of Japanese cuisine and Western confections. Licensed chefs in both fields will teach the classes assisted by Korean interpreters.

The school will offer two courses—one for prospective chefs, and one for professionals already working as chefs. The course for the pros will be limited to 24 students, and will include 132 hours of instruction over a six-month period. In addition to the school’s regular instructors, food preparers at well-known Japanese hotels, ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants, very expensive) and patisseries will also be used as teachers for the course.

The Nakamura Culinary School thinks it sees a business opportunity because there has been a surge of popularity in Japanese food in South Korea over the past few years. More than 1,000 South Koreans came to Japan last year alone to learn how to prepare Japanese food at local culinary institutes.

But the sharp depreciation of the won caused attendance to dip this year. School head Nakamura Tetsu decided to offer instruction in Seoul to make it cheaper for the students. It’s also easier for the students to learn from courses conducted in the Korean language. (Instruction at cooking schools in Japan is of course entirely in Japanese.)

The article notes this is the second cooking school to open a South Korean branch, after Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute.

Now how does this—and the many other similar stories I’ve presented here—clash with the pictures in the heads of people who have been entertained with tales about how the Koreans and the Japanese just hatehatehate each other?

Incidentally, the Fukuoka Asian Urban Research Center conducted a survey by questionnaire in February and March of residents in the major cities of South Korea to determine the city’s name recognition and its image in those areas. The survey found a name recognition of greater than 80% for their sister city in Busan, South Korea. That percentage soared to 95% for Busan women in their 20s and 30s.

The reason cited by the center for that stratospheric percentage among young Korean women was the frequency with which they or their friends hop across the Korean Strait to go shopping in Kyushu.

That doesn’t surprise me at all, but then I live near Fukuoka City, have seen and met many of those same young women, and know how easy it is to travel between the two cities because I’ve done it myself. Forgive me for believing the picture inside the dim cave of my own head.

The reggae izakaya

Takeo in Saga is a town of about 50,000 people roughly midway between the two slightly larger towns of Saga City and Sasebo, Nagasaki. It takes about a half hour to get from Takeo to either city, and an additional hour or so to travel to either Nagasaki City or Fukuoka City.

Buried even further in the back of today’s Nishinippon Shimbun was a blurb about a new dish being served at a “reggae izakaya” in Takeo called Nuf Nuf. (An izakaya is a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place.)

Nuf Nuf is run by 36-year-old Koga Manabu. The photo accompanying the piece showed a man with a genial smile and a knit tam covering what appears to be an impressive growth of dreadlocks.

Mr. Koga created a new dish that his customers think is quite tasty. He started with Sicilian rice, added wild boar meat, and used locally grown lemongrass as a flavor enhancer. He said he slices the boar meat very thin to neutralize its distinctive odor.

He offered it first at a trial tasting party on 31 May, and it went over so well he put it on the Nuf Nuf menu. He serves it with soup on the side and charges JPY 800 ($US 8.14), which sounds reasonable.

I’ve never been to Nuf Nuf, but I know people who have—including a Jamaican woman who enjoyed living in Saga for several years. She told me Koga Manabu was a nice guy and the food was good.

But aren’t the Japanese supposed to be xenophobic islanders turning even more inward and nationalistic? What’s this about some guy in dreadlocks in a town in the middle of the sticks creating new recipes using Sicilian rice? He’s going to ruin all those pictures in your head of Japanese who can’t abide foreigners or bear to put any kind of rice past their lips other than the plain but pure white variety grown on the islands.

Robo-chefs to take over Japanese kitchens

That’s what the headline in the New Zealand Herald said, and who are we to quibble with a source chosen as the Best Media Website in 2007, 2008, and 2009 in the Qantas Media Awards?

Here’s the first sentence in the article:

“They’ve got ones that clean, and others that pour drinks, so it was only a matter of time before Japanese inventors came up with robots that can cook.”

Just out of curiosity, have you seen one of those robots cleaning a house or pouring your drinks anywhere?

Neither have I.

But the best media website for three years running says it was just a matter of time before those robot-mad Japanese inventors came up with robot chefs.

Various prototype robo-chefs showed off their cooking skills at the International Food Machinery and Technology Expo in Tokyo, flipping “okonomiyaki” Japanese pancakes, serving sushi and slicing vegetables.

When did machines start to have “skills” instead of functions? And when did either machines or people start to “flip” okonomiyaki? Is poetic license the reason they’ve won that string of awards? It certainly isn’t because the person who wrote that article has seen anyone make those “Japanese pancakes”.

The real story here is that the Japanese have a knack for automating different types of labor that the biens pensants once lamented as dehumanizing, particularly on assembly lines in auto plants.

Robots are also efficient, dependable, show up for work sober and on time, and don’t have labor unions that demand retirement packages preventing the company from making a profit on the cars they manufacture. Ask the management personnel who used to work at General Motors, assuming you don’t have to chase them down on the golf course while they enjoy their severance packages.

“We all know that robots can be very useful. We want to take that utility out of the factory so that they can be used elsewhere,” said Narito Hosomi, president of Toyo Riki, manufacturers of the pancake-cooking robot.

Well, why not? Isn’t this just a logical progression from machines that mix carbonated water and flavored syrup in on-site dispensers at restaurants to give customers the soft drinks they order? Or the machines at any other plant the world over that manufacture and package food products in processes that are almost entirely automated?

Take a few seconds to think about it, and it turns out to be just the normal course of events in the development of any kind of technology. People come up with different ideas, spend the time and money to make them a reality, and see if they fly in the marketplace. If their ideas are useful, they make a profit. If not, they might be able to apply the new technology to different fields. It makes the world turn around that much more smoothly, and it’s even worth an article in the daily paper.

But how much more entertaining it is to create pictures in peoples’ heads of Robo-Chefs Taking Over Japanese Kitchens to flip okonomiyaki, presumably leaving the human Japanese to march around their rabbit hutches plotting new ways to conquer the Korean Peninsula! This time for sure! Taking an occasional break for sex with their inflatable dolls, of course.

If the media thinks they have to provide fictitious images to their consumers for the sake of entertainment, when the real information is much more entertaining, more enlightening—and much less dangerous—that’s the business model they have to live with.

But it’s too bad for them the soaring number of media bankruptcies and disappearing ad revenue isn’t just a picture inside their own heads.

16 Responses to “The pictures of Japan inside your head”

  1. The Overthinker said

    Aside from the fact that the photo very clearly shows a robot actually flipping the okonokiyaki, since when do you NOT flip okonomiyaki? Or is your interpretation of “flip” something other than “turn over,” perhaps with the sort of toss that pizza chefs use for pizza bases? A sort of vigorous toss in the air and hope it lands somewhere other than your face?

    And while the NZ Herald is a joke of a paper in many ways (the Qantas <edia Awards are for NZ papers, and there is not a lot of competition in such a small country), most of the blame for this should be put on The Independent, where the Herald got its article from.

  2. ampontan said

    To me, the picture very clearly shows the robot “turning over” the okonomiyaki. It isn’t a question of interpretation, but one of definition.

    When you flip a coin, do transfer it from the palm of one hand to the other so that it only moves 180 degrees from one side to the other, or do you vigorously shoot it up in the air, causing it to spin and rotate, before it comes down in the same hand?

    When you do a back flip off a diving board, do you simply go from feet on the board to head down into the water, another 180 change, or do you spring up into the air off the board and then rotate completely?

    I don’t know whether it’s still widely done or not, but in the U.S. short order cooks in diners most definitely did flip pancakes into the air, holding the pan off the griddle, and did it several times before serving the customer. They usually landed in the pan and not on their face.

    As for where they got the article, that’s where the RSS feed sent me (not sure if that’s the British paper or not with only that ID), but they chose to run it and either wrote that headline or allowed it to stand.

  3. The Overthinker said

    Seems a bit pedantic to me. When I flip a burger on the grill, I just put the spatula under it and turn it over. “Flip” implies a short sharp inversion, and as such seems perfectly fine here.

    Having actually looked it up now, I notice Websters has two definitions – yours (“to toss so as to cause to turn over in the air”) and mine (“to cause to turn and especially to turn over”). Thus I would hesitate to use this as an example of ignorant Western press.

    The Independent does refer to the British paper.

  4. […] See here for some quick recent examples of how different the Japanese are to the way they’re normally […]

  5. mac said

    Bearing in mind I am at least 8 hours away from any major city ‘known’ to the West, its notable that even we have one rasta shop full of Jamaican flags, Marley posters and green, black, read and gold clothes. A couple of hours up into the hills, they have a big reggae, ska and dub festival last summer that would never, ever be reported in the West.

    A dreadlocked and newly important husband turned up at our generously funded “International center” this month where we all go to mangle the Japanese language and develop crushes on the latest Chinese chicks to turn up.

    Casting aside the JETs for a moment (here today, gone tomorrow), I have folks from Laos, Nepal, Bangladesh, Korea, Sri Lanki, Ghana in my class. And a Canadian who is here working a modest 8.30 to 5.30 office job. Yes, Japanese folks do get to go home at nights.

    I thought the Rasta was Chinese because he sent most of the time speaking to them but it turned out he was Thai Thai (and not Chinese-Thai as most emigrants are). A musician and looking to dig in, get a farm and stay in Japan.

    Yes, just another bored afternoon in a racist, inward-looking, conservative Japan …

    I enjoyed the link immediately above. It looks like we have allies sleeping with the enemy too.

  6. James A said

    I don’t think Robo-Okonomiyaki will really catch on in Japan, half the fun with okonomiyaki is making it yourself. It just wouldn’t be the same with Johnny 5 making your dinner.

    Mac, it is interesting how much reggae has caught on all over Japan. One of my friends, a major vinyl-head, was amazed at just how many out-of-print reggae records he could find in little shops run by Jamaicans in Tokyo. He said he couldn’t even find this stuff in the States!

  7. John G. said

    Another somewhat related example: We constantly hear about how Japan’s demographic problem/labor shortage is exacerbated by the fact that Japanese would rather develop working robots than let foreigners come here and do any work. While it may be difficult to emigrate/obtain Japanese citizenship, there are still a whole ton of foreigners here doing the work that Japanese won’t. Walk into any convenience store in central Tokyo, and odds are the person behind the counter will be Chinese or Korean. My mother-in-law works in a bento factory, and the majority of her co-workers are either Philipino, Brazilian, Thai, or African. I guarantee you if you go to the Japanese equivalent of an industrial park, in any part of the country, you’ll find a whole lot of non-Japanese who have come here to do gritty or laborious work that your average freeter wont.

  8. ampontan said

    Walk into any convenience store in central Tokyo, and odds are the person behind the counter will be Chinese or Korean.

    Where I live it’s mostly college students and women with a high school degree who, years ago, when you asked them what they did, answered “Help out at home.” Now they help out at the convenience stores.

    College students also do all the menial stuff at eating and drinking establishments around here.

  9. mac said

    John G said

    > constantly hear about how Japan’s demographic problem/labor shortage is exacerbated by the fact that Japanese would rather develop working robots than let foreigners come here and do any work.

    Do we really? And obviously the tricky Japs are developing robots merely to stop untrustworthy foreigners into their country?

    Or is it just stuff that those medias which constantly attempt to portray Japan as inward-looking, racist, conservative … and stupid; and robots make for better economics freeing workers from brainless, laborious and repetitive jobs?

    Yes, you are. It would be much more humane to import shiploads of Chinks to the work for a pittance.


    (… excuse me for that kneejerk …) just out of interest, ask your friend about some Osaka folk music, Kawachi Ondo (河内音頭), that was funked up in the 70s. Its sounds surprisingly like early era Trojan Reggae and even rap, but happy and upbeat.

  10. Bender said

    I second Overthinker re the meaning of the word “flip”. People do “flip” okonomiyakis, at least if you’re around the Kansai or the Kanto area. You get booed if you don’t do it well.

    Yes, Japanese folks do get to go home at nights.

    You should come to Tokyo and see how terrible it is. Of course, there’re tons of oyajis who hit izakayas at 5 and are fully drunk at 5:30 and stay until the last train (don’t they have families?), but then there are millions of slave salary-men (well, some get paid well, so maybe they’re not technically slaves) who are lucky if they make it to the last train home and whiff the breath of drunken oyajis. It’s still considered a virtue to overwork, even though there’s not much work to do.

  11. ampontan said

    So Bender, are you saying that in the Kansai and Kanto regions, people use the spatula to lift the okonomiyaki entirely off the grill, then fling it up in the air so that it rotates, and then without touching it again allow it to flop down on the other side on the grill again?

    That’s what pancake flipping is. They do it for show, just like the pizza chefs fling the crust into the air, and Chinese cooks toss around vegetables when they’re stir frying them.

  12. Bender said

    Isn’t your definition of the word “flip” too narrow? How do you answer Overthinker’s point about burger-flipping?

  13. ampontan said

    I answer the point about burger flipping by reminding you once again we’re talking about okonomiyaki and not hamburgers.

    Read the excerpt again. “flipping Japanese PANCAKES”. I am talking about the definition of the word in this context.

    Whoever wrote the article saw the description PANCAKE and got cute with the wording.

    Overthinker at least admitted (de facto) that he’s never seen anyone flip PANCAKES. Flinging them in the air is what flipping PANCAKES is all about. It is not what cooking okonomiyaki is all about.

    I wouldn’t call them Japanese pancakes anyway, any more than I would call Matsuda Seiko the Japanese Madonna, or any of those other phony comparisons.

  14. Bender said

    But then, it’s a Kiwi newspaper you’re referring to, and I wouldn’t know if they flip pancakes like they do in American diners.

    Also, it’s not a bad analogy. They’re both flat, round, and baked on hot plates.

  15. The Overthinker said

    Ampontan said “And when did either machines or people start to “flip” okonomiyaki?”

    I said all the time, and gave a definition from Websters to support that. If you wanted to critique the use of the word “pancakes,” then you should have done so directly. As it stands, whether or not you consider them pancakes or not (though an argument could be made for griddle cakes, for Kansai style at least), the use of the word “flip” in this article is not incorrect. “Whoever wrote the article saw the description PANCAKE and got cute with the wording.” is merely an assumption.

  16. gwern said

    > When did machines start to have “skills” instead of functions?

    Since AI started using statistical and connectionist techniques, where one literally trains the program to do the desired task, often resulting in a product entirely opaque and incomprehensible to the original ‘author’. (Neural networks are particularly notorious for the end product making no sense and looking random, but still working.)

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